I was at a meeting of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists as part of my Ph.D. on high-tech entrepreneurship in Japan. Most of the people in Nagoya that day were Japanese, including the group of entrepreneurs that I was with.
One person at the meeting certainly wasn't local. He had big glasses and a funny hairstyle, and he was sitting alone in a corner.
I went over and spoke with him for five minutes, and it wasn't a sparkling conversation. He certainly didn't seem like a very inspiring communicator, and he had no slick elevator pitch for whatever he was doing. Based on our brief chat, I wouldn't have bet much on him achieving anything.
That person was Bill Gates.
Our short meeting in Nagoya, and Gates's subsequent achievements, taught me three things:
1) Never underestimate who's in front of you. For a start, don't make my youthful mistake of judging people by their hairstyle. It's a common human tendency to pass judgement on the way others look and dress. But doing this won't serve you well in business.As I said in a previous post, withholding or suspending negative judgements about situations or people is a crucial part of having a global mindset.
Sure, Gates might have been short on charisma in those early days. But he more than made up for this with his incredible drive and competitiveness, and his single-minded focus on the PC software business.
2) Surround yourself with smart people. Gates could certainly be a tough manager and a sometimes brutal debater in meetings, but he also hired smart people at Microsoft and gave them the freedom to develop new ideas.
Although Gates and other great leaders might not admit this publicly, I think they are well aware of their own shortcomings. They know that other people can do some things better than they can. And they know that balanced management teams, plus clever employees bursting with ideas, are real assets for a business. So they hire and promote people with different skills.
A good example is Steve Ballmer, who succeeded Gates as Microsoft's CEO in 2000. Just watch Ballmer jumping around the stage during a presentation. He's much more charismatic than Gates, much more of a showman, and a much better communicator.
So, focus on your strengths, let others fill your skill gaps, and give them the chance to shine too.
3) Know when to step back. Besides hiring smart people with a range of skills, Gates also knew when it was time to step aside from the CEO role.
This is not a quality you always see among business leaders. Far too often, top executives think the company can't run without them. So they just occupy their position and don't prepare their succession.
Gates was different. He had the self-awareness to know when to let go. Sure, he initially stayed very closely involved with Microsoft, and is still the company's chairman. But he stopped working full-time there several years ago and now devotes most of his time to his philanthropic foundation.
You never stop learning in business and in life, and I'll never forget that meeting in Nagoya over 30 years ago.